Why Dalits worship English

By Cleofato A Coutinho
21 May 2011 23:35 IST

In Lakhimpur Kheri District of Northern Uttar Pradesh, Dalits have pledged to learn English language as well as worship it as a Goddess. A temple has come up dedicated to the new Dalit Goddess - ‘English’. The Goddess resembles the statue of liberty of New York. But in place of the flaming torch, the Goddess holds aloft a pen with her right hand and cradles a book in the crook of the left arm. It was the brain wave of Dalit intellectual Chandra Bhan Prasad who hit upon the idea of worshipping English as a Goddess. Chandra Bhan Prasad supervised the temple construction in Banka village in U.P. with the sole slogan: “without English nothing is possible for us, Dalits”.  

Amidst complete backwardness and access to English education being limited to 0.1% of the Dalits, Chandra Bhan Prasad started selling hope to the community that has been treated as untouchables in the Indian society and has sold that hope very well.

October 25, the Birthday of Lord Macaulay, is celebrated by a section of Dalits led by Chandra Bhan Prasad. According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, it was Lord Macaulay’s policy that set in motion the liberation of Dalits by dismantling the traditional system of learning based on Sanskrit, which was denied to lower castes. Chandra Bhan Prasad claims, “when the British opened English-medium schools, Dalits were prevented from entering them by upper caste people, forcing the colonial government to issue orders that no one could be denied admissions on the basis of caste, creed, gender or religion”. Lord Macaulay is celebrated as father of modernity.

It is access to education and English education(!) through the missionary schools that Bhimrao R. Ambedkar came to study at the Columbia University and London school of Economics. The Chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution of India said , “English is the milk of lioness” and Chandra Bhan Prasad says “those who drink it become stronger”. He adds: “if your child learns, English it is as if he or she has inherited 100 acres of land”.

Another Dalit scholar B. Shyam Babu states: “English is no longer just a language, it is a skill; without it you remain an unskilled labourer”. Shyam Babu highlights the new class divide in modern India, the minority of English speaking elite and the rest. Narendra Jadhav, another Dalit intellectual and member of India’s Planning Commission states: “it’s a self evident truth that Dalits should learn English whenever they can”. English as an instrument of social inclusion was accepted by scholars and reformers before Ambedkar came on the scene. The 19th century educationist social reformer and legendary figure outside the Dalit movement Savitribai Phule stressed the importance of English and education through her poems.

“In such a dismal time of ours

Come mother English, this is you hour

Throw off the yoke of redundant belief

Break open the door, walk out in relief”.

 

In any case, in the past 30 years, the number of English medium schools have mushroomed in a big way. The general perception is that English is a symbol of power. In any case, even any middle class who can afford are flocking to costly private schools with the only less fortunate left behind. There is a feeling that states which make English language optional are left behind. Chandra Bhan Prasad argues “that is why Bangalore (capital of southern Karnataka state) has become an international hub for Information Technology and not Lucknow (capital of Uttar Pradesh)!!.

 

But why such a strong reaction against the Hindi language which is their mother tongue and when there is no evidence that English would bring the handsome dividends to the   Dalit Community? That  is selling of a hope, which hope looks a distant reality in the globalization era where Indian Economy is developing and English is seen as a key to better opportunities and access to the world. In a research paper “English and the creational of self identity”, Yuki Ohara of the Kyoto University of Japan states that some parents even mention that they would prefer their children to be taught in English even if it may end up neglecting their own mother tongue.

Why such a sorry situation has come about, Ohara argues: “because Dalits recognized the great opportunity in the Indian society and around the world offered to those Indians that have been educated in English. They regard English as the key for their social mobility…” Another reason by Ohara is “English is the neutral language in India in terms of  Dalits’ perspective whereas many languages in India are inherited from Sanskrit, the language dominated by Brahmins thousands of years and not allowed to be learnt by Dalits”.

Savitribai Phule wrote on those years

“Learn to read and write, O my dear one

Opportune times Mother English has come

Manu’s ways are evil and mean

Poor and depressed we have all been”.

 

Chandra Bhan Prasad may be in search of a headline grabbing as he is accused of by a section of dalits who do not agree with him. Not all Dalit intellectuals agree with his prescription,  but the point is that it is a dominant view shared amongst by other intellectuals like Kancha Illaiah, the former vice Chancellor of Osmania University. Kancha Illaih advocates public and private schools be brought under 50% syllabus in English and the other half of syllabus in the Vernacular language.

 

A right mix of Vernacular language or mother tongue with English education is possibly a way forward. Even China is investing in the English language. Thousands of Chinese are getting trained in English and may be after some time lucrative Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) may be lost by us to China. The three decades of liberalization of the Indian economy, the globalization and the development of the Indian economy has clearly shifted the language debate that started immediately after liberation in a different direction. That is today’s reality. In fact as a first step, a compulsory English subject has been introduced from 1st Std at the national level.   The nationalist fervour against the use of English that had reached a high peak in the early sixties is on the decline, taking into consideration the reality of the times.

The Dalit intellectuals may have taken the debate too far even when there is no evidence of a windfall for the Dalit community from the English Medium education.

But can the country afford to ignore the cry of a section that feels left behind and let down?

 

 

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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